George Seferis Seferis, George (Pseudonym of Giorgos Stylianou Seferiades; also Transliterated as Georgios Stylianou Seferiadis) - Essay

Giorgos Stylianou Seferiades


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Seferis, George (Pseudonym of Giorgos Stylianou Seferiades; also Transliterated as Georgios Stylianou Seferiadis) 1900–1971

Seferis, a Nobel Prize-winning Greek poet, was also a distinguished translator and critic. Seferis combined Greek mythology with modern poetic techniques and is generally credited with the renovation of twentieth-century Greek poetry. His work has been likened to the Symbolists, who were early influences. Odysseus is a recurring image in his work, that eternal wanderer being Seferis's symbol of spiritually dispossessed modern man. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

Edmund Keeley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The funeral of George Seferis] proved to be a more or less spontaneous public event, not to say political demonstration, of a kind normally reserved in Greece for the passing of popular prime ministers illegally out of office. The drama and symbolism of it—thousands of young people raising the victory sign at the poet's grave, shouting "immortal", "freedom", "elections", and singing an early Seferis lyric … would surely have surprised the poet himself even more than it may have surprised his readers in England and America. Less than three years before his death …, Seferis declared, in one of the few interviews he allowed to appear in print:

I am sorry to say that I never felt I was the. spokesman for anything or anybody…. I've never felt the obligation…. Others think they are the voices of the country. All right. God bless them….

When Seferis published a volume of poems dedicated to the people of Cyprus in 1955—his first volume since the death of Sikelianos—critics in Greece, quick to dress him in the mantle of national poet, either celebrated the publication as an eloquent defence of Greek interests in the Cyprus dispute or criticised the poet for beginning to write what was understood to be propaganda in verse form. The new volume was, in fact, typical of the kind of poetry that Seferis had been writing since the middle 1930s and especially during World War II, "political" poetry only in the broadest sense of the term: a persona brooding over the "new idiocies of men/or of the gods" that had brought on renewed suffering, fearful always that he is "fated to hear newsbearers coming to tell him" that the latest war is "all for an empty tunic, all for a Helen" (as he puts it in his 1955 poem alluding to Euripides' heroine). The persona of the Cyprus volume is much the same as that of "The Last Stop", written ten years earlier, at the end of World War II, just as the poet was returning to Greece from Italy after his long service with the Greek Government-in-exile…. (p. 37)

What the critics of the Cyprus volume failed to recognise was that the poet had succeeded in transcending propaganda—and anything approaching it—by taking the same large view, by giving expression to the same mythologising sensibility that had characterised his vision of the contemporary...

(The entire section is 984 words.)

Walter Kaiser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The publication of this translation of A Poet's Journal: Days of 1945–1951] represents an act of personal homage on the part of each of us to one of this century's greatest poets and most civilized men. (pp. vii-viii)

[No] one, under whatever circumstances, can fail to be moved by the intimacy and intensity of these journal entries, which take us so completely into the heart and mind of the poet and his creative act, in a way that few other such documents do. There are other great literary journals in this century—Gide's, Woolf's, Camus's, Pavese's—and there are also collections of letters which help us better to understand an author. But I cannot think of many which expose quite so clearly the naked thought and sensibility out of which poems have grown. Generally, the closest we seem to get to the genesis of literary works is in documents such as the canceled version of The Waste Land. This journal, however, reveals to us the deep inner sources of Seferis's poetic achievement. It possesses that candor of revelation and that rare numinous quality which we associate with James's notebooks and the letters of Keats and Rilke. (p. viii)

With [his title], Seferis joins hands with, and pays tribute to, the greatest of his predecessors in modern Greek literature, Constantine Cavafy, a number of whose most personal and powerful poems begin with the same title, though of course with different dates. And indeed, if any spirit haunts these pages, it is that of Cavafy—Cavafy the European, Cavafy the Greek, the lonely exile, the skeptical political observer, the chronicler of history, the forger of language, the celebrant of love, the man of memories, the witness and martyr (in his tongue the same word signifies both) of the decline of Greek civilization.

Seferis's journal, or more precisely that portion of it printed here, begins shortly after the liberation of Greece by the Allies at the end of World War II. (p. ix)

[Following the war, Seferis] and his wife Maró went off for two months to a house appropriately named Galini—the Greek word for calm, peacefulness, serenity—on the island of Poros near the coast of Argolis.

It is here on Poros that the first of the three central preoccupations of this journal begins. Seferis seems to have had some intimation of what was about to happen to him. "I am starting," he writes, "on a long, very dark voyage, and I'm deeply wounded by my land." Nursing that wound, thinking to escape everything, he comes to the Galini only to discover that his voyage has brought him to the great poem his whole life had been preparing him for. To the reader who knows that poem, "Thrush," these are pages of endless fascination through which one can chart the gradual emergence of this work which, as Seferis says, sums up all the past years and brings to fulfillment ideas for verses he had for some time been jotting down at random in his journal. One finds those "ideas"—phrases, rhythms, images, thoughts—hidden away in this diary from its earliest pages; many of them eventually take their final form in the "Thrush," others are employed even later in Three Secret Poems. His experience of the Galini, "the house by the sea," which gave him as he later said "for the first time in many years the feeling of a solid building rather than a temporary tent," leads him down Proustian paths to speculate on the houses he has known and lost during his lifetime, and these memories become the genesis of the plangent threnody on houses that forms the opening section of the "Thrush." So too, we see him go off one day for a swim and come upon the sunken wreck which provides his poem with its title and one of its basic images. In the same way, we follow his...

(The entire section is 1548 words.)

Eugene Current-Garcia

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Originally entitled Days of 1945–51, [the] portion of Seferis's voluminous diary [published as George Seferis: A Poet's Journal] was first made ready for publication in Greece in 1967 because, he said, its pages stood out "almost by themselves, among the many that we use to help our memory in various ways." Memory, which Seferis himself found inescapably painful, thus becomes the keynote of the book, woven like a dark thread binding together each of its dominant themes, yet paradoxically evoking and shaping his most moving poetic utterances. (p. 311)

[At] the end the great poet sums up, in a dramatic crescendo of feeling, what he meant by saying that these pages stood out by themselves among many such which the artist uses to help the memory "in various ways." One of those ways may be seen in the poetry itself, which for many years Seferis had fashioned out of the raw stuff of life recorded in his diary. As a native Greek poet he could hear echoes of Homer and see evidences of ancient as well as modern Greece all around him. Thus … he enjoyed a certain advantage over foreign contemporary poets like Pound and Eliot, who also draw on Classical mythology for their substance…. [He made the fullest use of that advantage] by making his mythic gods and heroes come alive in a vividly realistic setting; so that in his poems the ancient and modern worlds, and the roles of past and present become intermingled and identified as...

(The entire section is 509 words.)